Perfecting the Opening


Last week, on the Malice in Memphis blog, we introduced the 2018 Hit Me With Your Best Shot writing competition.  The post provided helpful hints and some Do’s to writing a compelling opening.

This week, I want to focus on a few of the common Don’ts.

The opening paragraphs, the opening pages should be an invitation, a promise, a question or an unproven idea. It baits the reader and compels them to keep turning pages.

How do you accomplish that?

Here are 4 common mistakes you want to avoid:

Info dumping

One of the more commonly agreed upon Don’ts is info dumping. That’s when you fill the reader in on everything – the day she was born, what he had for breakfast that morning. . . that incident in the third grade that scarred him for life.

Readers don’t need to know how characters got to the point they’re at. Not in the beginning. They want to piece the story together on their own. Give them bite size hints and let them put the character’s past together in their own time.

Exposition is a story killer. Don’t do it. Especially in the opening.

Just don’t.

Long descriptions of the killing streets of Memphis. The thump of your dog’s tail, the rhythmic beat of a metronome. Or your character reflecting on life, thinking about their current or past situation, or contemplating doing certain activities.

Some of this is necessary but only after you have hooked your reader into your story.

Failure to start the story in the right place

You’ve heard the advice: start with action. The execution of that advice is a little tricky.

That doesn’t mean car crashes, blowing things up or killing a bunch of people.

You have to start with a character. Give your reader an opportunity to bond with somebody.

Get them into your story, make them care before throwing the character into action. Without depth of character and without context, an action scene right off the bat feels shallow.

…and I’m probably going to close the book.

A good story begins not with action but the scene before the action.

One way of making your opening active is through dialogue.

Boring Dialogue

Dialogue is one of the key factors to creating a hook that makes your opening pop. It grounds the reader in the action and informs about the character.

Dialogue is the easiest, fastest way to get to know your characters. No exposition or backstory needed.

Dialogue allows you the opportunity to develop a unique voice for your characters. It changes pacing, creates conflict and deepen the reader’s connection to the story.

It should be short and snappy and NOT BORING.

Writing Craft 101

Nothing screams amateur like:

Clichéd openings – It was a dark and stormy night.

Overused phrases: It’s only a matter of time. The calm before the storm. Curves in all the right places. Try fresh and unique ways to express emotions and descriptions.

Also, use as few adjectives as possible: were you really bored to painful death?

Use strong verbs: why use “know” when you could “discover”?

As a reader, nothing turns me off faster than overly descriptive language:

Nadine prayed the airbag would save her, her generous mouth opened in a scream, her periwinkle blue eyes fixed in horror on the ocean below, her auburn hair, thick and luxuriant, streaming behind her, her elegant, long legs braced for the crash.

Simple is better and packs a helluva punch. Nadine braced for the crash.

The 2018 Hit Me With Your Best Shot Writing Competition is underway. We are accepting submissions through May 1, 11:59 central time.

What are other suggestions that you’ve used to help your opening pop?

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